Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 28 March – 4 April 2014

Conflicts Forum

We noted last week that President Obama’s key Middle East foreign policy issues had turned suddenly sour – on the eve of President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s brief visits to the region. It is as if truculence towards the US had become contagious – and perhaps there is a sense it in which it has: for many leaders in the region – coming from very different standpoints – the disparity between Middle Eastern realities (the breakdown of an entrenched status quo, and the nihilistic forces that it has unleashed) which they are experiencing, and the virtual reality of a western understanding of the same events, but filtered through the optic of the Enlightenment – simply has become too great to bear. The point here is that this remains true – even though the particular reality and its associated ‘devils’ differs so fundamentally from Middle Eastern leader to leader. Put simply: western states are seen to have little to offer when an entire ‘system’ (the Arab system) is visibly crumbling and shedding lumps of its substance – and when fear predominates.

So, at the end of a week of intense American diplomacy, what has changed? The answer is strikingly little.  President Obama went to dine with King Abdullah: it was as if an estranged couple were trying work out what to do with a failing marriage.  But for all the fine words and all the familiar claims by the couple of having laid to rest the irritations and slights of a strained marriage, the outcome is clear: they will not divorce (yet), but separation - it is to be with Obama’s visit serving "as a patch rather than a cure for the uneasiness between the two countries". They will maintain a decorous front in public, but in ‘private’ each will go his or her own way – free to choose new amorati, if they can.

In the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, it is clear that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians see or want the presently mooted (two-state) solution as much as the mediator, John Kerry, wants them to want it.  The mediator being keener, and more enthusiastic on his solution than either of the Principals to a conflict historically has never been a good sign.  Conventional wisdom is that ‘the process’ is at an end, but this is not very likely. The twenty-year-old two-state formula has been at an end (in the sense of yielding a viable, independent second state) for some time, but ‘process’ is something that both the present leaderships need - for their own self-serving reasons.  What does seem likely however is that a process that slowly salami-slices away the Palestinian negotiating position for token rewards (for example, a prisoner release), must ultimately lead to the overturning of that leadership.  The Palestinians have never been so weak, so lacking in self-esteem, or so bereft of any viable cards to play that it is hard to see how ‘process for process sake’ can continue indefinitely. There will be a 'palace coup’ (as happened to Yasir Arafat).  The dismal fact is that it will probably be Mohammad Dahlan who will be externally financed to do the job.

And the Iran negotiations are becoming daily more and more like the Palestinian negotiations: ‘process for process sake’ – as conservative opponents in Iran had been predicting since the outset. Statements from senior US Administration officials suggest that a ‘solution’ will not be as comprehensive as initially suggested, and we will not see a complete lifting of the sanctions regime -- some (or much of it) will remain: "Wendy Sherman suggested for the first time the possibility of a less than complete and clear-cut outcome of the process". It seems that the US Administration (as in the case of the Palestinian talks) is content to make a symbolic gesture – laying down a ‘road map’ to pass on to a successor Administration – rather than to tackle the substance, which would involve overcoming intense internal American political opposition, and possibly be a source of political strife for the Administration.

Syria, too, seems in the wake of the Obama-Abdullah tête-a-tête, to be a case of plus ça change … David Ignatius reports in language notably vague that President Obama appears ready to expand covert assistance to the Syrian opposition, but only for the purpose of pressuring President Assad into negotiating more seriously. Policy-makers in Washington will know that sending a few more weapons to the elusive ‘moderates’ is an empty gesture.

In the Middle East (and Afghanistan), little has changed as a result of a week of diplomacy, and in Ukraine it seems that the US is gradually being led towards de-escalation and some form of non-aligned, loose, federal system, which allows substantial autonomy for perhaps three distinct Ukrainian regions.

However, it is this -- Ukraine and US relations with Russia -- that holds the greatest potential to bring change to the Middle East. Although President Obama plainly is trying quietly to de-escalate with President Putin, the effort has its opponents. Aside from well-known cold warriors within his own Administration, the long-standing British defence correspondent, Richard Norton Taylor writes“Putin's actions in Crimea have given Nato ‘a shot in the arm’, said a former British Defence Secretary, reflecting recent widespread concern about the future of the west's military alliance”.

“The concern was that with Nato-sponsored combat operations in Afghanistan coming to an end this year`’, Norton Taylor continues, “the alliance would have nothing to do, and its west European members would make further cuts in their defence budgets. The hope in Nato headquarters is that Crimea and Ukraine will shake member governments out of what its officials regarded as complacency. After much agonising over Nato's purpose after Afghanistan, the Crimea crisis has given the alliance a new purpose" said Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London. He added: "If Putin were to attack the territory of a Nato member state, like Poland or Latvia, other Nato states – including the UK – would be obligated to respond militarily."

Of course there is no realistic prospect of such action by Russia, but Ukraine remains in a highly unstable and volatile state. If things worsen in Ukraine; if civil conflict erupts there, Russia may have little alternative but to intervene again to protect ethnic Russians. In such a case, NATO and the defence lobby undoubtedly will use such a pretext to wring out every last dollar they can for defence spending and an expanded NATO ‘mission’ on the basis of a resurgent Russian ‘threat’.

Obama’s de-escalation strategy therefore remains highly fraught to defence interest groups, to pressures from NATO, from Cold War nostalgia – as well as from extraneous events emerging from within the American system as one incident this weekso clearly illustrated, when J. P. Morgan blocked an official Russian money transfer “under the pretext of anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the United States”.

Unlike previous responses to sanctions on Russia imposed by the West, which were largely taken as a joke by the Russian establishment, on this occasion however Russia was genuinely furious: according to Bloomberg, the Russian foreign ministry categorised the JPM decision as "illegal and absurd." Subsequently, the transfer was “unblocked”, but had it not been, it may well have sparked both a currency war (Russia de-linking from the dollar for energy payments) and then possibly a tit-for-tat response by the US targeting Russian oil and gas supplies (as some in the US Congress already advocate).

There is no doubt that President Obama will not willing be led down this route, but there are so many ‘automatic destabilisers’ (as far as Russia and President Putin are concerned) present in the US system: from NED (the National Endowment for Democracy), USAID, the State Department, the CIA, ‘K’ Street lobby groups, and Special Forces, all of whom use elements of covert operations that once were the preserve of the CIA alone, to de-stabilise America’s enemies, that some event such as the JP Morgan (self-imposed) implementation of sanctions against an official Russian transaction remains a real possibility. In such an event, the Middle East will find itself at the forefront of both a dollar ‘war’ and an energy pipeline ‘war’ which will have profound implications.

Do western leaders really believe their own rhetoric when they say Putin has expansionary ambitions and wants to rebuild the Soviet Empire? Did Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, mean it when she said Russia’s actions in Crimea are similar to “what Hitler did back in the 1930s”? Frank Furedi, when posed the question by a Russian journalist as to why it is that the West refuses to admit to, or acknowledge any contributory role through its own actions to the crisis in Ukraine, finally comes to “the uncomfortable conclusion that the motives behind the current campaign to demonise Russia are based on genuine convictions”.

“Of course, there is a great deal of propaganda, wilful distortion and a significant element of fantasy in this campaign”, Furedi writes, “but the outlook it expresses has been so firmly internalised by many in the West that it now constitutes their reality”. Indeed it was this narrative of a linear historical ascent converging towards shared Enlightenment values to which Obama gave voice in his Brussels address. (We argued at the time that Obama was obliged to do this – if only to divert from the Russian narrative of EU complicity in the de-stabilisation of Ukraine). Furedi however, warns that the shallow posturing and hollow moralising, which this zeitgeist seems to beget, represents a very real danger to escalation with Russia, and therefore to global stability.

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